Blowing Away the Stink of Corruption

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Once again officials of the European Union have been caught with their hands in the taxpayers' purse. A long-term solution would involve the thorough restructuring of the institutions. In the short-term, we need a Parliamentray Enquiry with powers to subpoena witnesses, argues Dutch Euro-MP Erik Meijer.

 

A leak last May unexpectedly brought to light the fact that Eurostat had concealed spending from the European Commission, hiding moneys in secret bank accounts. Involved was a total of €,980, 000. It also appears that Eurostat had placed orders with offices established by former employees, sometimes paying artificially inflated sums.

 

The European Commission would have us believe that there’s nothing much here to worry about. That the member states expect more and more from the EU, but are unwilling to pay enough to meet the extra costs this entails. That Eurostat is burdened with an enormous and growing workload, unmatched by additional staff, and is therefore forced to contract work out.

 

After the fall of the foregoing Santer Commission, the rules governing such tendering were altered. According to the Commission, outsourcing procedures employed by Eurostat had gradually led to problems which, however, could not arise under the present rules.

 

The Commissioners also insist that they have done everything they could in order to bring the truth to light and to stop irregularities from recurring. The officials responsible have been removed or suspended. Immediately the problems were uncovered the Commission had had  the affair thoroughly investigated. By way of embroidering this tale, however, a number of the European Parliament’s political groups are demanding a peace offering: Pedro Solbes, the Commissioner whose responsibilities include Eurostat, must go. This sacrifice will ensure that harmony reigns anew between Parliament and Commission.

 

From Commission documents it appears that the fraud going on at Eurostat had been known about for some time. Over a number of years, Commission officials have sounded the alarm bell over irregularities. The response, however, has repeatedly been to state that  nothing was wrong, while the officials involved suffered as a consequence harassment from their superiors. The irregularities at Eurostat turn out to be much more widespread than the Commission admits. Years ago Commission officials had already brought the institution’s attention, internally, to a number of problems: multiple conflicts of interest, falsification of documents, over-billing, unregistered labour, and the failure to follow up charges of fraud.  These problems are, moreover, not confined to Eurostat. Officials within the Commission have reported comparable irregularities elsewhere, such as in the official European publications office, while it appears that internal reports concerning other Commission services have also pointed to serious errors committed by high officials, reports which were not followed up.

 

The claim that new budgetary rules have put everything to rights turns out to be a myth. The existing rules would have served perfectly well to prevent irregularities if they had only been complied with. It would appear from this that introduction of new rules was intended only to put everyone’s mind at rest, without in reality doing anything to tackle the problem. No creeping shortage of staff, no ineffective rules, but merely a fraud that could happen anywhere, to anyone, and obviously not only to a service of the European Commission.

 

Originally Commission President Prodi was expected to have to appear before the Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee.   This Committee, consisting of parliamentarians who specialise in this sort of dossier, wants to see heads roll. Between the European Parliament and the Commission, however, it was instead decided that Prodi only had to appear before a meeting of leaders of the Parliament’s political groups, a “club” which is most marked by its awareness of the political sensitivities of the hour.

 

It appears increasingly that the so-called zero-tolerance with which the Prodi Commission promised  to tackle fraud has come to nothing, that under Commission President Prodi it is once again clear that the customary internal messages regarding irregularities and fraud will continue to be swept under the carpet, and this will go on without any adequate response from the Parliament.

 

It is high time that these matters were thoroughly investigated. Sacking of Commissioners might appear impressive, but it does not solve the problem. A radical solution must begin with a Parliamentary enquiry. A peace offering by the Commission is a nice gesture, perhaps, but certainly no solution. 

 

Erik Meijer is a Member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party, Dutch Section of the United Left Group, the GUE-NGL

 

Speaking in the debate on the issue in the European parliament on Wednesday 24 September, GUE-NGL leader Francis Wurtz said:

 

The EUROSTAT affair: The European Commission has learned nothing!

 

Although the Eurostat affair has been the talk of the town for months, it was only last Wednesday evening that Members of the European Parliament have had access to the audit report on the matter carried out by the Commission.

 

The Prodi Commission has not, it seems, learned anything from the unhappy experience of the previous college. Instead of having, immediately, put its cards on table, revealing up front the serious malfunctioning now proven, identifying the persons responsible and applying the appropriate sanctions, it gives the disastrous impression of releasing information about this issue drop by drop and with great reluctance. So, what is there to hide?

 

Regarding this situation, my group systematically stressed the requirement of transparency. It asked that no limit be put at the right of the Budgetary Control Committee to subpoena whom it wishes, including the President of the Commission himself. It was also in favour of an intervention from Mr Prodi in plenary session on the subject of the publication of the internal audit report of the Commission.

 

Some extremely disconcerting issues  – which raise the question of political responsibility - deserve indeed to be clarified:

 

·         on 8/7/2002, the OLAF informed the Secretariat-General of the Commission that it had transmitted to the Public Prosecutor's office the results of investigations into possible frauds concerning Eurostat.

 

·         similarly, the lawyers of the senior officials in question stated that "all the Eurostat calls for tender to work with external firms were approved by the relevant department of the Commission, and financial control approved the payment of these firms". They add: "the reports (of internal audit) carried out during the Prodi Commission were sent to the central control services of the European Commission from the beginning of 2000".

 

However, the Commission assures us that they have not been informed of possible irregularities before last spring.  Where is the truth? When and to what extent has the Commission been informed of these allegations? Where is the political responsibility?

 

The political scope of these questions is all the larger as Parliament approved the discharge in April 2003, therefore before being informed of extremely serious facts, which could have affected its decision.

 

We will try on the occasion of the Conference of Presidents of Thursday 25 September, to obtain from Mr Prodi the necessary explanation.  In any event, our group trusts Mr Freddy Blak, Vice-President of the Committee on Budgetary Control and Coordinator of our group in this Committee, who has since June 2002 been among those who challenged the Commission in connection with Eurostat, to continue and carry out the search for truth and the establishment of political responsibility.